The rebirth of American watchmaking has been well documented. From the homage makers and small startups to the old stalwarts and the media darlings, Pennsylvania to Detroit, there’s something in the air — something exciting. Most of the watches from American brands these days look back nostalgically for inspiration and design cues — Shinola with its round cases, small seconds and wire lugs, RGM with its pocketwatch-on-a-strap aesthetic, or MKII with its ‘60s tool watch vibe. But there’s another American watch company — Devon — that doesn’t bother with the past and may actually be the best brand to wave the banner for American watchmaking, given its firm focus on the future and emphasis on innovation.
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Scott Devon, the company’s namesake founder, isn’t a Swiss-trained watchmaker and if you look at his history, you don’t find chronographs or perpetual calendars. You find cars. His one-off supercar, a voluptuous monster called the Devon GTX, set a lap time record at the Laguna Seca racetrack. So what does a car guy know about watches? Not a lot, and ironically, that’s exactly what makes the Devon Tread watches so controversial yet so exciting. The Tread is a watch that, intentionally or not, gives the finger to the traditions of classical watchmaking, yet demands its respect, befitting a company from America. It is brash, brutish, sinister, sleek and beautiful in an industrial kind of way.
Devon’s first watch, the Tread 1, caused a considerable stir in the conservative world of luxury timepieces. Many dismissed it as a battery-driven design exercise. But the utterly unique way the Tread displays the time using belts and tiny motors, the technology behind it, and a refined build quality that rivals the workmanship in any high end watch made it impossible to ignore. It was selected to compete in the prestigious Grand Prix d’Horlogerie de Genève (GPHG) in 2012, which made the watchmaking world sit up and take notice. While the Tread 1 was a sensation, it was not without fault. The case was a massive brick, impractical for daily wear, the running seconds belt, while fun to watch, was tiresomely noisy, and it was very expensive.
Calibre: Devon electro-mechanical
Power reserve: approx. 2 weeks between charges
Hours, minutes, seconds, chronograph
Material: DLC-coated 316L stainless steel
Diameter: 42 millimeters
Crystal: Curved sapphire
Leather with pin buckle
The Devon Tread 2 ($9,950), like its predecessor, is not mechanical, nor is it quartz. Rather it is electro-mechanical, making use of motor-driven belts to keep and display the time. Those motors are tiny precision stepper motors derived from those used in the medical field and the belts they drive are tough, toothed aerospace-grade nylon that are a mere .0002 of an inch thick. Timekeeping is controlled by a micro-processor and the position of the belts is monitored by a optical scanning system. A crown and blade-like lever on the right side of the case controls all functions. The watch is powered by a rechargeable lithium-ion battery that runs for weeks on a single change. The box and stand the watch comes in function as its charging unit, using conductive wireless technology to bring it back up to full power.
Devon made some clear progress from the first Tread to the second. Compared to the Tread 1, the Tread 2 has a downright wearable 42 by 44-millimeter tonneau-shaped steel case that is curved to fit the wrist with an integrated leather strap. And while still expensive, the watch is also more affordable by half than its predecessor.
Then there’s the thing that most watch lovers dislike about battery-powered timepieces, and the biggest complaint about the first Tread: the lack of movement and intricacy and, yes a soul. The Tread 2, despite its lithium heart, is dynamic and alive. Through the curved sapphire crystal, watching the pulleys and overlapping belts is like peering into an automobile engine. The noisy running seconds belt from the original Tread is gone. Now the Tread 2 only has two “Time Belts”, one vertical and the other horizontal, that are advanced minute by minute, hour by hour, by the precision motors. While the Tread 2 lacks the constant motion of the original model, half the fun is watching the belts move, so Devon built in an on-demand seconds function that converts the minutes belt to seconds. When activated by the control lever, the belt whirs around blindingly fast until it reaches the correct second and then ticks one blocky digital numeral at a time. In a similar fashion, the watch can be used as a chronograph with another flick of the lever and a press of the crown. Then the hours and minutes belts track elapsed time, but only up to 12 minutes, 59 seconds. Whereas a mechanical watch movement is mostly in one flat layer, the Tread 2 is layered vertically below the dial (if you can even call it a dial) and even when nothing is moving, the potential energy is palpable.
Despite its iconoclastic mechanics, the Tread 2 is surprisingly easy to wear, more so than many of the modern mechanical timepieces from brands like Urwerk or MB&F. It is lightweight, ergonomic and comfortable. In the DLC-coated black guise of the “Nightmare” variation we wore for a week, it is almost subtle, sliding under a shirt sleeve and looking like a digital sports watch to the uninitated. That may not always be the desired effect for someone who drops $10,000 on a cutting-edge category-creating luxury timepiece. Luckily for those people, the wilder Tread 1 is still available and the Tread 2 is also available in a gold version with a gold bracelet.
It’s unclear where Devon and the Tread fit into the watch landscape, which gets more complicated by the week with the arrival of smart watches, a resurgence of innovation in traditional mechanical watchmaking, and the continued glut of affordable quartz watches. The Tread 2 is an anomaly, a spike on the graph, and time will tell if it truly catches on in the ever crowded field of luxury watches. But one thing is for sure: it is uniquely American, loud and proud, looking forward with an utter disregard for tradition. You could almost call it avant-garde haute horlogerie, but then, that’s French.